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Review: Motherland, by Maria Hummel

Counterpoint, 2014. 375 pp. $26

The year 1944 is coming to a screaming, bloody close in Germany, but the war goes on, demanding ever more sacrifice. Frank Kappus, a reconstructive surgeon in Hannesburg, a spa town outside Frankfurt, has been drafted to an army hospital in Weimar. Two months widowed, he has remarried so that his three sons, the youngest of whom is an infant, have a mother to care for them while he’s gone.

Liesl, his new bride, must feed, clothe, and bring up three children who don’t know her. Food and clothing are impossible to find; air raids worsen life every day; the two elder boys run wild; and the neighbors treat her with suspicion and dislike, glad to tell her that she’s nothing like her beautiful, friendly, fun-loving predecessor. She’s done nothing wrong, but of course, that’s not enough. “The point was to be liked, or if you couldn’t be liked, to be overlooked.” And Liesel sticks out, leading people to wonder what secrets she has to protect.

One secret concerns eight-year-old Anselm (called Ani), the middle child, already young for his years, who’s been acting strangely, showing signs of cognitive damage, if not mental disturbance. A doctor has told Liesl that Ani may need to be evaluated at Hadamar, a psychiatric hospital where, it is whispered, the unfit are put to death. Frank Winkelmann Hadamar What Liesl does to keep him and her two other boys safe requires a remarkable degree of inner strength, which, she realizes, may vanish in an unguarded moment. Like the fine novelist she is, Hummel has set herself and her protagonist a tall task, for Liesl isn’t quite cut out for struggle. She grew up in her aunt and uncle’s home, treated like a servant among her six cousins:

Liesl had excelled at gratitude. She ate it for supper, always the last to be served. She wore it on her back, always clothed in her aunt’s stained, cast-off jumpers. She listened to it all night, positioned as nurse outside each incoming baby’s room, ordered to wake if he cried.

Meanwhile, Frank has his own troubles. He plans to desert if the Russians break through, only a matter of time, but that’s a deadly game. His superior, Captain Schnell (!) seems more devoted to punishing subversion than running a hospital, and when Frank hears a rumor that the medical officer at nearby Buchenwald may be infecting the inmates with typhus, Schnell warns him not to be curious. Frank takes the hint.

I admire much about Motherland, a novel head and shoulders above the other two I’ve reviewed here about wartime Germany (City of Women, David R. Gilham, December 11, 2014; The Undertaking, Audrey Magee, March 19). Hummel can make even a visit to the kitchen a tense occasion, and she captures the atmosphere of fear and deprivation without resorting to cartoon Nazis or melodrama. She’s also an excellent prose stylist. Women’s faces “looked as if someone had fixed their dread in stone.” Dust gathers on furniture, “as if it were ever so slowly growing a beard.” It’s details like these, rooted firmly in the mundane, that tell the story of day-to-day survival.

Yet Hummel lets her characters off the moral hook, despite her best efforts. She explains that she based her novel on family history, notably a series of letters that say nothing about the death camps or the totalitarian state, only about trying to cope. Okay. She resisted the temptation to allow her characters acts of resistance–wisely, I think–and says it hurt to leave out all but scant references to Jews or the Holocaust. (One brilliant, subtle description evokes the death camps and crematoria in a different, unexpected context.)

Fair enough. I accept that ordinary people, just trying to remain overlooked, would focus instead on where their next meal was coming from, especially when the bombs are falling. However, it’s those bombs that Liesl doesn’t think about, as in why Germany’s enemies are so relentless, or why the war has lasted so long. Nor does she ever connect the dots between the laws that may send Ani to Hadamar and those that condemn Jews.

Buchenwald was built in 1937, the first such camp on German soil, so Frank can’t be completely ignorant of what its purpose is, even if he’s never heard that inmates are injected with typhus. But he simply doesn’t think about it. Nor does he ever stop to consider that the horribly maimed men he treats have their counterparts on the other side. Nor, more broadly, does he reflect on what war has done to Europe.

Nevertheless, I could settle with this–in fact, I did, for almost the whole novel–except for the outrage that Liesl, in particular, expresses against the Americans. What they do is so unjust and heavy-handed, she believes, and I sense that the reader is meant to sympathize with her. But I can’t, not about this. Liesl never grapples with anyone else’s sufferings or how they might have come about. To me, Hummel squanders the empathy for Liesl and Frank that she’s so carefully built.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.